Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) is a combination of play therapy and behavioral therapy for young children and their parents or caregivers. The adults learn and practice new skills and techniques for relating to children with emotional or behavior problems, language issues, developmental disabilities, or mental health disorders.

When It's Used

Aimed mostly at parents and caregivers, this intervention teaches specific skills they can use to help improve physical and verbal exchanges with their children. PCIT was developed for children ages 2 to 7 and has been shown to be effective for children who exhibit disruptive behavior or have experienced trauma, as well as those on the autism spectrum. PCIT and PCIT-based programs are also evidence-based interventions for preventing child abuse and neglect and for decreasing the child’s risk of antisocial and criminal behavior later in life.

article continues after advertisement

What to Expect

Parents and caregivers play with the children in one room, while the therapist observes and coaches from an adjacent room equipped with a one-way mirror. The therapist communicates with the adults through an earphone, providing training and guidance. Parents and caregivers are discouraged from using negative language and encouraged to ignore harmless negative behaviors while showing enthusiasm and giving praise for positive behaviors. They also learn other skills, such as reflecting the child’s language back to him or her to help with communication, describing out loud what the child is doing to increase the child’s vocabulary, and imitating the child’s good behavior to demonstrate approval.

How It Works

By learning specific techniques, parents and caregivers can build a better relationship with a child, and the child may start to demonstrate improved behavior. Overall, PCIT can help improve family dynamics by working to reduce negative behavior and interactions within the family and to practice new behaviors and ways of communicating that are more encouraging and reassuring. When practiced consistently, these new skills and techniques can instill more confidence, reduce anger and aggression, and encourage better individual and interactive behavior in both parent and child.

What to Look for in a Parent-Child Interaction Therapist

PCIT therapists, social workers, and counselors work in private practice and in community mental health settings. A therapist certified by PCIT International is a licensed mental health service provider with a minimum of a master’s degree and additional training and experience in the principles of PCIT. In addition to finding someone with the appropriate educational background and relevant experience, look for a therapist with whom you feel comfortable working on personal and family issues.

Ginn, N.C., Clionsky, L.N., Eyberg, S.M., Warner-Metzger, C.W., Abner, J.P., Child-directed interaction training for young children with autism spectrum disorders: Parent and child outcomes. 2017. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. 2017;46(1):101–109.
Piquero, A.R., Jennings, W.G., Diamond, B., et al. A meta-analysis update on the effects of early family/parent training programs on antisocial behavior and delinquency. Journal of Experimental Criminology. June 2016;123(2):229–48.
Lyon, A.R. and Budd, K.S., A community mental health implementation of parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT). Journal of Child and Family Studies. October 2010;19(5):654–68.